Labour, HIV and the Workplace: Working to Get the Job Done

Maria's world started collapsing around her when the clinic nurse told her she was pregnant and HIV positive. She had been faithful, so it meant that Josef, her husband, had given her the virus. She felt the fear rise within her as she recalled how others in the village were treated when their tests came back positive.
She was furious at Josef -- not just for infecting her with HIV, but also because he would be fired when the trucking company he worked for learned of his HIV status. She, too, would lose her factory job in the export processing zone because being pregnant or HIV positive was enough to get you fired -- labour laws did not apply in this zone. Employers knew that firing people for having HIV was illegal, but with little enforcement, some always managed to find ways to do so, without repercussions. It seemed like only yesterday that Josef had mentioned to Maria that his union was trying to start an HIV prevention programme, but was struggling due to lack of funds.
Josef and Maria's story is repeated the world over, and in some ways sums up the key priorities in organized labour's response to HIV/AIDS in the workplace: first, it illustrates how the rights of workers -- and for that matter anyone -- can be violated simply due to their HIV status; second, it underscores the necessity of expanding HIV prevention programmes, especially in the workplace; and third, its message is a call to action to stop similar yet entirely avoidable tragedies.
In June 2011, when world leaders gather in New York for the General Assembly High Level Meeting on AIDS, ten years will have passed since the adoption of the 2001 Declaration of Commitment on HIV/AIDS. Five years ago, the world committed to achieve universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support, and it has fallen short of this goal. If world leaders re-energize their leadership commitment and demonstrate the political will to translate the words of the Declaration into reality, they will also reaffirm that there is hope for similar global commitments. The June High Level Meeting will be a watershed moment, not only for the AIDS response, but also for the credibility of global commitments in general.
For its part, until the human rights of people living with HIV (PLHIV) are respected, and access to HIV prevention, treatment, care and support is universal, the International Labour Organization (ILO) will take pratical steps to protect the lives of working people and forcefully advocate for the sustained political will and resources needed to defeat the HIV virus.
It is unacceptable that thirty years into the AIDS response, human rights violations of PLHIV remains a persistent aspect of the AIDS epidemic. Research from the PLHIV Stigma Index, a partnership initiative that includes UNAIDS and prominent non-governmental organizations, confirms that people living with HIV across all regions experience significant job loss, and consequently loss in income and access to finding work because of their HIV-positive status. Outside of the workplace, the pernicious effects of HIV-related stigma and discrimination are clear impediments to nearly every dimension of the AIDS response.
Workplace HIV prevention and treatment referral programmes remain few and far between, even though 90 per cent of people living with HIV are of working age. Despite their cost effectiveness, prevention programmes are under-resourced, and in too many cases policy and legal barriers stand in the way of effective programmes to counter HIV risks. While it wasn't always true, the greatest tragedy today is that all of the suffering brought on by HIV/AIDS is preventable.
For years, labour constituencies have recognized that protecting and expanding the rights of workers means that unions must work to reverse a wide range of social conditions, including the very same socio-economic drivers of the AIDS epidemic: poverty, gender inequality, unemployment, stigma, discrimination, lack of social protection, and inadequate education policies. It also sees these same obstacles as a barrier to progress on many priorities it shares with the United Nations, including the Millennium Development Goals, the Decent Work Agenda, food security, the right to accessible health care, climate change and, of course, universal access to HIV prevention, treatment, care, and support. That is why labour's response to HIV/AIDS is intertwined with its broad pursuit of social and economic justice. It is also why it seeks to build bridges across these issues to form alliances that work for a common purpose.
Trade unions represent tens of millions of workers in every region of the globe -- from the most highly skilled professionals to the migrant worker living on subsistence wages: it is a substantial wealth of human resources to draw upon. The diversity of members help shape strategies to transform global priorities into country-level responses that are custom-tailored to suit local conditions. Global priorities that require local action include:
Securing the human rights of PLHIV, especially workers: Trade unions will press for national plans to implement the ILO's new Recommendation on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work. National implementation of the Recommendation will go far in creating a favourable legal framework that can lead to increased HIV prevention, treatment, and other essential services. Especially important is the Recommendation's appeal for countries to integrate workplace programmes in their national responses to HIV/AIDS, development, and social protection.
Expanding the HIV "prevention revolution" to the workplace: For over a decade, labour has persisently called for the expansion of workplace-based HIV prevention programmes. It is unacceptable that over seven thousand people are infected with HIV on a daily basis -- 90 per cent of whom are of working age. Labour can support the call by the UNAIDS High Level Commission on HIV Prevention for a "prevention revolution" by:

  • Advocating for scaled-up prevention measures and a strong leadership commitment to sustain them.
  • Joining with employers to maximize the workplace as a prevention venue for HIV and related disease.
  • Holding ourselves, political and community leaders, and non-governmental groups accountable to support HIV prevention funding and effective programme implementation.
  • Expanding human rights protection and working to overcome the inequities that drive the AIDS epidemic globally and locally.

Advocacy that emphasizes rights, resources, and recognition of the need to create cross-cutting alliances that will work to a common purpose: Labour advocacy was crucial in winning the adoption of the Recommendation. It will now press for national implementation plans, and will continue its five-year effort targeting G8 Member States to keep their universal access commitment and provide the necessary resources to achieve it. These advocacy efforts have created new alliances and deepened old ones at the global and country level.
Labour has never failed to recognize that the need to build global and national coalitions is key to achieving meaningful and sustainable change. It is all the more reason that the forces working to remove barriers to progress on key UN priorities, including the AIDS epidemic, should work together whenever possible, and especially at the country level.